- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2022

The homeless shelter in Laurel, Mississippi, is receiving a high-profile upgrade from people who know the meaning of a real home. 

This week, clients of The Salvation Army’s shelter there saw rooms rehabbed by Ben and Erin Napier, stars of HGTV’s wildly popular “Home Town” series, where the building-and-decorating duo makes rundown homes sparkle.

“Many of our clients have gotten used to being turned away and rejected by society,” Captain Jason McMullin, the Army’s commanding officer, or lead pastor, in Laurel, said via email.  “However, by revitalizing our shelter, the Napiers have helped us change that narrative and restore peace and hope to our neighbors walking through our doors for generations to come.” Mr. McMullin works in Laurel with his wife Keisha.

The Napiers, members of a United Methodist Church congregation in Laurel where Ben teaches Sunday School, first partnered with the evangelical Christian church and social services organization in 2021, during the Christmas fundraising season, when the group’s familiar kettles are seen across the country.

As they learned more about the Army, which has run a shelter in Laurel since 1939 and provided emergency shelter and transitional housing to 7,779,900 people nationwide in 2021, Mr. Napier said the couple wanted to do more.

“When we think of The Salvation Army, everybody thinks about the holidays, they think about bell-ringing or the kettles, but it’s a year-round thing,” he said in a video interview before the rehab project started. He added that the couple’s visit to the Laurel facility “was the first time we had ever actually been to a Salvation Army shelter, and toured it. It’s incredible the amount of work that they do.”

Mrs. Napier, the acknowledged design expert of the couple, said the Army does “a great job of taking good care of people while they pass through” the shelter. She said she was impressed “in seeing that they have a women and children’s dorm and a little living room where they can try to have a little normalcy while they’re here. It meant a lot to me to see how much our local shelter does all day long.”

Mr. Napier, who was a youth pastor for 10 years before turning to home refurbishment and earning TV fame alongside his wife, said that becoming parents — their children are 4 and 1 — changed his perspective about the homeless.

“Prior to having kids, we may not have connected with it,” he said. “But when you walk through the shelter, and you think about children being there, or you go to Children’s Hospital, it’s hard to envision your family being there and your kids being there. So, we wanted to help out [and] freshen up [the shelter].”

The couple didn’t blow out walls “or anything like that,” as often seen on their television show, Mrs. Napier said. Rather, she said, “I’m humanizing a cinderblock building where it doesn’t feel like a dorm for the kids to pass through, especially, and just finding ways to make it feel more like a home.”

She said the work involves “paint, some pretty curtains [and] a little kid-size table and chairs where they feel like it’s their size and not such a big, scary grown-up world. It’s a light update, but little things that will make it feel a little bit softer.”

Mr. Napier said he hopes clients at the shelter will “feel like somebody cares” after the renovations, while his wife offered a spiritual tie-in.

“The Salvation Army is really a ministry that’s all about second chances for people,” she said. “So I hope that this place is a good first step to that second chance.”

When the couple renovates an older home in Laurel for new owners, Mr. Napier added, “We don’t always do the whole house, typically we do the hardest parts of the house and then it’s up to the homeowners to maintain it and do the next step. With the Salvation Army, that’s what it is, it’s that first step for those people.”

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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